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Will history repeat itself?

 

JAG funds support all components of the criminal justice system…and may be used for state and local initiatives, technical assistance, training, personnel, equipment, supplies, contractual support, and information systems for criminal justice…” Be it “the primary provider” or not, the president wants to eliminate JAG, and in the last days of 2007, the Congress crippled it to the point of almost being ineffective. However, this president is in the last months of his second term, and Congress has the power and opportunity to repair the damage it has done to JAG immediately. At the time of this writing, Congress was poised to either pump life back into the program or to leave it weakened and vulnerable because of an inadequate FY 2008 appropriation.

JAG has been called the “flagship” of the many grant programs administered by DOJ. It has roots that date back to 1968 when the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was established. LEAA was confronted with administering and being held accountable for a national program that funded hundreds of millions of dollars to thousands of disparate justice agencies located in the 50 states and in thousands of cities and counties. LEAA viewed these agencies as components of a larger justice system and structured its grant programs to improve the operation of that system and thus more effectively address the growing crime problem. Conditions requiring justice agencies to coordinate and plan together were attached to grant awards, and by the end of the ’70s, LEAA was being roundly criticized by many in criminal justice because of “too much red tape” associated with obtaining a grant. Those not in the justice system said grant monies were being misused and with no visible impact on crime. In fact, the program was forcing individual justice agencies (including the courts) and state and local units of government to work together as a system in order to qualify for grant monies. LEAA strong-armed and cajoled independent justice entities located within units of state and local governments to begin planning and acting as components of a much larger system. LEAA was causing a fundamental and positive change in how criminal justice operated, and as the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.” So, by the end of the ’70s, the Carter administration, bowing to the political forces of complaining grantees and some high-visibility scandals regarding misuse of grant monies, dismantled LEAA.

The LEAA program had a lasting impact in many ways. Its grants produced voluntary standards guiding new techniques for policing, modeled information systems for all disciplines within the justice system, created legislative standards for the national sharing of justice information, developed new technologies to improve the administration of justice, etc. The list is extensive, but it can be argued that its greatest achievement was bringing consensus among justice and political leaders nationally that justice agencies in all levels and branches of government had to work together as a system to adequately address the problem of crime. This was no mean feat given the varying political agenda at the city, county, state and federal levels of government, the issues of separation of powers between branches of government and federalism issues associated with states rights and responsibilities in light of requirements from a federal program. It is highly questionable if this would have occurred without strong LEAA leadership and grant monies needed to bring the players to the table.

Not much time passed before the need for a national formula grant program was brought back to national prominence. The federally declared “War on Drugs” needed a vehicle to focus state and local justice agencies on the rapidly growing national crime problem associated with the sale of illegal drugs. A program was needed that could bring the power of thousands of state and local agencies working in concert with the federal government to eradicate the drug problem. The plan was to mobilize the country’s criminal justice system to address a national priority.

In 1984, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) was established as a component of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) within DOJ. The BJA was to provide leadership and resources to state, local, and tribal governments and communities to reduce crime, violence, and drug abuse and to strengthen the nation’s criminal justice system. The BJA provided assistance through formula and discretionary grants, training and technical assistance. OJP was structured in a manner to prevent the consolidation of power in one office formerly held by the administrator of LEAA. The directors of the various bureaus within the OJP were presidential appointees, and the assistant attorney general in charge of the OJP had the power and responsibility of coordinating the bureaus. Final grant-making authority was given to each bureau director. The formula grant program morphed away from any emphasis on the stick to an emphasis on the carrot.

In 1988, BJA’s efforts expanded when the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program was created. The program was named for a New York City police officer murdered in the line of duty in February of that year. The Byrne program was focused on police-related programs that integrated federal, state, and local drug enforcement efforts and efforts to improve the operational effectiveness of law enforcement.

The funding approach was dramatically simplified when compared to the application requirements of LEAA. Statewide planning requirements were eliminated, and individual grant applications required considerably less information from the applicant. The approach anticipated that the leaders of state and local operational justice agencies were in a better position to know what was needed than were state or federal grant program bureaucrats. And, no doubt, that was and is true especially when it comes to the needs of individual agencies, but when the resources that motivate and support multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline and regional planning are removed, the needs of the “criminal justice system” are often not taken into consideration.

Over time, grants were funded that met the needs of specific agencies but didn’t necessarily improve the capabilities of the criminal justice system that serves all agencies. The notion of system was not as influential in federal grant-making determinations. In fact, advocacy for the justice systems planning approach was supported by a number of associations that came into existence under LEAA and continued as national players after BJA was constituted. Those groups, such as SEARCH Group, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, the National Criminal Justice Association, the National Center for State Courts, etc., had a national constituency and perspective. Also, several states including California, Florida, New York, and Texas maintained the state planning agency (SPA) model instituted by LEAA continued system-wide planning for use of grant funds.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that BJA started to address the problem of “stove pipes,” or information systems projects that had been funded through grants and may have served the needs of a specific agencies (or units within an agency), but couldn’t communicate with other agencies (or other units within an agency) because there were no planning requirements that caused applicants to do so. There were no system-wide planning requirements or national standards that had to be met that forced grantees to look at information needs beyond their own agencies. As a result, many information systems implemented with Byrne funds couldn’t communicate with one another. Since then, the OJP and BJA have put a gradual but ever-increasing emphasis on systems integration and information sharing when funding information and communications projects. Conditions regarding adherence to national information systems standards have become routine on grant awards. Regional information-sharing efforts have become a priority. This approach has strongly influenced the approach taken by the Department of Homeland Security in the administration of its grant programs.

In 1996, the Congress authorized the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant Program (LLEBG). LLEBG was to provide units of local government with federal grant funds so they could either hire police officers or create programs that would combat crime and increase public safety. Grantees were city or county governments as opposed to justice agencies. In 2005, the Congress combined the Byrne program with the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant Program and called the new program the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG). However, this move not only eliminated a criminal justice grant program, it significantly reduced the total amount of funding that had been available through a combination of two programs.

In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has pushed strongly to reduce criminal justice grant funding administered by DOJ. The administration’s priority has been initiatives that fight terrorism and prepare for and respond to natural disasters. To the extent that this approach addresses the needs of the criminal justice system appear coincidental. An understanding that the national justice information infrastructure is the foundation upon which public safety and homeland security information needs are met appears missing.

And so, the assault on the DOJ’s “flagship” grant program comes at a time when JAG is most needed. The administration has attempted to eliminate the program for several years, and in the FY 2008 appropriations, Congress, caving to threats of a presidential veto, cut JAG by 67%. Unlike the fall of LEAA when the program disappeared with little fanfare, the justice system is vigorously defending the need for and value of the JAG program. The National Criminal Justice Association is leading a coalition of about 30 national justice organizations to restore funding for the program.

According to Elizabeth Pike, senior manager for government affairs for NCJA, 56 senators and 218 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters urging their colleagues to restore Byrne funding. Also, according to Pike, all 56 state and territorial attorneys general have signed a letter to Congressional leadership expressing concerns about Byrne cuts and asking that the funds be restored, as have 35 governors and many national organizations including the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, and the International City / County Management Association. Also, numerous justice associations including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police have advocated for the restoration of Byrne funding. Articles and op/ed pieces have run in hundreds of newspapers across the country calling for the Byrne program to be funded.

Congress is in the last stages of passing an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for FY 2008 needed to prosecute the war in Iraq. The Senate’s version has $490 million for the Byrne program included in a $10 billion non-war domestic spending package in the bill. Chances for passage are tenuous at best. Should the bill pass with the domestic spending included, the president has said he will veto the bill.

Will JAG languish at the $170 million level in FY 2008 or with the $490 million supplemental? Will it be restored to $660 million? Will the Congress and the president move to support the nation’s state and local “criminal justice system” that they want to rely on to address federal anti-crime and anti-terrorism priorities? Will they act now or (as has occurred in the past) wait a few years before seeing the need for such a program again?

While these FY 2008 questions are waiting for answers, Congress is moving forward with the FY 2009 appropriations process. The appropriations subcommittees have finished hearings for the FY 2009 appropriations and have begun the process of marking up bills. Early indications are that the Congress plans on funding grant programs for DHS at about the FY 2008 levels, rejecting the presidents cuts reflected in his FY 2009 Budget Request submitted to Congress in February. However, at this time there are no specifics indicating the size of the FY 2009 DOJ grant appropriations (including JAG) from either the House or Senate.

Wanna bet that history will repeat itself?

Gary R. Cooper is the vice president of consulting and research at CJIS GROUP. CJIS GROUP is a market intelligence organization currently focused solely on state and local justice and public safety agencies procuring and employing information and identification technologies to improve the administration of justice and support the war on terrorism. He can be reached at gary@cjisgroup.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2008

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